Friday, June 8, 2007

Blogging as a way to promote Saipan, and the Saipan Chamber of Commerce scholarship program.

Food For Thought 6-8-07

Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.

Has it really been a week already since we last did this? I did have a cold this week, and that could have had something to do with it, but I swear this past week was pretty much just a blur. But that is not to say that it hasn’t been an eventful week, actually I’m kind of amazed when I look back at all the things that were packed into this past week.

I had Walt Goodridge come on my morning talk show, Island Issues a week ago, and we had a good discussion about where Saipan is heading, and what role each of us may play in it’s future. In case you’re not familiar with him, Walt is an author with quite a few books under his belt at this point, he also write a column each Wednesday in the Saipan Tribune called the Saipanpreneur Project, and he is the founder of the We Love Saipan internet network. I swear Walt’s brain is clicking away about 28 hours a day with all kinds of plans and ideas. I have invited him to be a regular guest on Island Issues to discuss his ideas and to hopefully inspire you listeners about some of your hidden potential as well. I believe he’s going to take me up on it, and I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing what comes out of it.

If you haven’t checked out the We Love Saipan web page, let me encourage you to do so, it’s at www.welovesaipan.com. And if you’d like to write a little testimonial about why you love Saipan and have it included on the page, they are always looking for more people to be included. Especially if you have a web page or a blog, it is a great place to link to, and help build exposure for the network and for your web page as well.

As I read through some of the people’s blogs, I was finally pushed off my lazy backside to start my own blog. I have had people suggesting it for a long time, but I always thought it was too much work setting up a website and everything. That’s because I had never really checked out www.blogspot.com, it’s basically blogs for dummies. It takes all the work out of it, and you just click on the options for how you want your page to look, and it does the rest of it for you. Oh yeah, and the best part is, it’s absolutely free! So then you can upload pictures to your blog, it makes it very easy, you really don’t have to have any html knowledge at all. Then you just write whatever you want to say in your blog, just like you’d type it out in a regular Word document, and push the Publish button, and then you have it, your own blog.

This is truly a great way to get free exposure for Saipan, and to let other people see Saipan from your eyes. They can see the pictures you choose to put online, and hear what you think about things. This is a great way of countering that website, which shall remain nameless, that has nothing but bad things to say about Saipan. When Walt started the We Love Saipan website on December 6th of last year, it was ranked 155th in the Google search for Saipan. As of this morning, when I just checked it, it came up in the 10th position. The more people that connect to the network, and the more hits it gets, the higher it will climb in the Google search. Wouldn’t it be great to have a website promoting Saipan in a positive light be the first thing that comes up in a Google search? While this may not fix all the problems currently facing Saipan, it is certainly a step in the right direction, and it allows you to become a part of the solution.

And I have to admit, I’m enjoying blogging, it’s a way to put down your thoughts and observations and have them recorded before you forget them. It’s basically a modern day journal, only one that you let the world read. You can talk about anything you feel like, and make it as personal or impersonal as you wish. For me, it’s a way to talk about more things than I can cover in my weekly Food For Thought. So some of my blogs will be my thoughts about various issues or events, while others will be talking about my 27th wedding anniversary with Kelli, which we just celebrated on June the 7th. So just in case you don’t get enough of me each morning, and once a week with Food For Thought, now you can read my ramblings on my blog as well. I can’t guarantee that it will always be something you’ll be interested in, but then again you don’t have to read it if the title doesn’t interest you. I’m telling you, if I can do a blog, anybody can do a blog, it really is that easy. Mine is at www.saipandiver.blogspot.com.

In my blog I’ve talked about having some of my underwater pictures published in an upcoming book, the Saipan Chamber of Commerce scholarship program, the meeting with Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, my sons new ferrets, and Kelli’s and my 27th wedding anniversary. Like I said, you can talk about anything you feel like. In my case, I usually don’t have nearly enough time in Food For Thought to talk about all the things I’d like to, so I find this is a good supplement. It allows me to go into other topics that might not make the cut for Food For Thought, and it allows me to talk about things that our family and friends in other locations might be interested in.

I had a couple topics I wanted to discuss today; one was the visit by Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne and the other was the Saipan Chamber of Commerce scholarship program. I’m not going to say a whole lot about Secretary Kempthorne’s visit, but I did want to point out that I was very impressed with him as a person. He seems genuinely concerned about and interested in the CNMI, and said that he wants to make a difference. I believe him, and I expect that he will do whatever he can for us back in Washington, but we need to keep in mind we are only one very tiny part of his responsibilities. If you want to know more on my thoughts about his visit, you’re welcome to check out the comments about it on my blog.

I did want to spend a little bit of time today talking about the Saipan Chamber of Commerce scholarship program. The Chamber has fundraisers throughout the year in which we raise money to give to select graduating high school seniors in the form of a college scholarship. That’s where the funds from the Corporate Challenge go, some of our mixers and socials are also fundraising tools for the scholarship fund. We also do raffles during the regular membership meetings to raise extra money for the scholarship fund. And we host debates of gubernatorial and senatorial candidates for the community, the proceeds of which go toward the scholarship program as well. We try to give out about $10,000 in scholarships each year, some years it’s a little more and others it might be a little less, but that’s our goal each year.

We announce the program each year to graduating high school seniors encouraging them to apply for the scholarships if they are headed for college. This year we had 19 students apply, each and every one of them very impressive in their own right. The problem is we only had 6 - $1,500 scholarships to give out. So members of the Education Committee interviewed all 19 students, trying to narrow down the list and figure out which ones we felt were the most deserving students. It’s not all just about academics, but of course that is a big part of it. We are also looking for students who understand what community service is all about and who have already started giving back to the community they live in.

If these students represent our future, then things are really looking up, they were a most impressive bunch. The only thing that bothers me about the whole process is that we have to turn any of the students down; they have all worked hard for their accomplishments. So the next time you see the Chamber of Commerce doing a fundraiser, please be generous and help us help this next generation of business leaders and professionals. Even though the scholarships were only for $1,500 each this year, every little bit helps when it comes to funding a college education, and every student was most appreciative.

This years Saipan Chamber of Commerce scholarship winners were Tikla Brown – who was home schooled this past year, Raneeza Cano from Grace Christian Academy, Henry Chan from Saipan International School, Emily Jang from Marianas High School, Bernadeth Piamonte from Marianas High School and Chellette San Nicolas from Northern Marianas Academy. Each and every one of them students who made their schools and parents very proud. Congratulations to each one of you and we all wish you the best of luck as you embark on this next phase of your life heading off to college.

And to those of you still in high school, keep those grades up and get involved in your community so that we can be interviewing you for the Saipan Chamber of Commerce scholarship when you’re a graduating senior.

I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

We finally have the answer to the minimum wage question, but what does that mean to us locally?

Food For Thought 6-1-07

Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.

We finally have the answer to one of the questions that has been looming over our heads for months now. We knew that the U.S. politicians, primarily the Democrats, have been pushing very hard for a federalization of our minimum wage, and a takeover of our immigration. As of last weekend, we now have an answer to the minimum wage question. Both the U.S. House and Senate passed an Iraq war-funding bill that included an increase in the minimum wage, and the President signed it into law last Friday, or our Saturday. The CNMI is now to be under the federal minimum wage, which is on the way up to $7.25 an hour.

We didn’t get the deal we were hoping for, which would have given us a .35-cent an hour increase, and then had a special wage board determine when and if further increases could be implemented without serious damage to the economy. But we did get a better deal than the one that many of us had feared. The minimum wage will go up .50-cents an hour, 60 days after being signed by the President, or on July 25th. Then it will go up .50-cents a year starting one year from the date of signing, or May 25, 2008. We were afraid that it would be going up .50-cents an hour every six months, which would have been pretty difficult for many businesses to swallow, especially in this depressed economy we’re currently experiencing. So our minimum wage will be $3.55 an hour on July 25th, then jumps to $4.05 an hour on May 25, 2008. From that point it goes up .50-cents an hour every year until we reach $7.25 an hour, which won’t be until May 25, 2014. That gives us a little breathing room, and time for us to hit bottom and hopefully start the recovery that will follow.

There is no doubt about the fact that this is very bad news for the remaining garment industry on Saipan. Several of them may be closing down immediately as they feel they cannot shoulder any increase whatsoever at this point and remain competitive. Others have said that $4 an hour is their break-even point, and anything beyond that means they will no longer be profitable. So with that being said, it is very realistic to assume that the complete end of the garment industry will happen no later than May 25, 2008. That means substantially less tax revenues coming in for the government, and a big reduction in the number of contract workers on Saipan. Of course that will also be affecting many other businesses as well, all the small mom and pop stores around the garment factories, and any other business that does business with the garment factories. It also means that we will no longer be shipping any product out of the CNMI, so the cost of incoming freight will be going up drastically as well.

One of the aspects of the minimum wage increase that has a lot of people worried is the effect it will have on house workers or maids, farmers, and fishermen, as these are all job categories that have their own separate minimum wage, which is much lower than our regular minimum wage. According to the Lt. Governor and Attorney General, who were both on my talk show, Island Issues, last week, fishermen will be exempt from this new minimum wage increase so it should not affect their salaries. Farmers may also be exempt, if they are employed in a business that offers the produce or product for sale, and the business has over 500 man hours in a pay period, in other words they would have to have at least 7 farmers employed, working full time.

The bad news comes for those who employ house workers, maids, gardeners and maintenance workers for their households. These categories will be affected by the new minimum wage increase, and it will take effect on July 25th, not on the renewal date of their contract. They will also be converted at that time for a salaried worker to an hourly worker, who will be paid a minimum of $3.55 an hour, and they will also be entitled to time and a half for everything worked over 40 hours a week. Right now many of the contracts for house workers are for $300 a month, and require them to work from 6 am to 6 pm. So if you cut your house workers down to 40 hours a week, you will have to start paying them $142 per week beginning July 25th, or in effect nearly doubling their salary. According to the Lt. Governor, there are some deductions that are allowed if you’re providing their housing and their meals. But the Attorney General, Matt Gregory cautions that you may be getting into legal trouble if there is a dispute as to the real value of the housing and food you’re providing. You also need to be warned that if you are asking your house workers to work in excess of 40 hours per week, you must pay them time and a half. Even if they offer to extra hours for you at no cost, you would be foolish to let them do it without properly compensating them for it. If they file a labor case against you when they leave alleging that you didn’t properly pay them for all overtime worked, you could be on the hook for thousands and thousands of dollars.

Just another word to the wise where house workers are concerned, you should start having them fill out timesheets, giving an accurate record of the hours they actually worked, and have them sign it at the end of each pay period. Then you should keep those records as long as the employee is still on island so you have proof of their hours worked.

Yes, it’s going to be more work and definitely more expensive to have maids or house workers from this point forward, but frankly, the house workers have been underpaid and taken advantage of for years and years here. They have been made to work very long hours for very little pay, and it’s time that situation was made right. Our lawmakers made this separate class of workers that was paid far below the minimum wage so they could have their own servants and workers and pay them as little as possible. It’s my belief that this is one of the biggest reasons that the critics of the CNMI have fought so hard to take over our minimum wage and have it incorporated with the rest of the country. They saw this as a travesty that we were bringing in contract workers to be our maids and house workers and paying them as so ridiculously low a wage. It was self-serving of the lawmakers to create such a class of working poor just for their own benefit, and they still have this same greedy, self-serving attitude.

There is a Labor Reform bill that is currently being debated in both houses. The lawmakers have been working on this bill for a year now, and it is supposed to fix many of the problems currently in our system. They were trying to get this bill out before the U.S. congress took any action, hoping that it would convince the U.S. that we were finally serious about cleaning up our own house. But the lawmakers couldn’t help but keeping their own self-serving interests included in this bill. In section 4952 of this bill, entitled, “Exit from the Commonwealth”, it says that a foreign national worker shall exit the Commonwealth within 15 days after the date of termination of the approved employment contract or renewal, except as provided for in this chapter. The very next section talks about exceptions for the periodic exit requirement. It says that a foreign national worker shall exit and remain absent from the Commonwealth for at least 6 months during every 42-month period. It goes on to say that this limitation does not apply to foreign national workers who are employed in professional or executive positions, or domestic workers. In the copy of the draft bill that I have, it describes an executive as someone making over $30,000 a year, and then goes on to clarify it even further.

So seriously, the only exemptions from the 6 month exit requirement are executives making over $30,000 a year and domestic workers, or maids? How do they come to the conclusion that executives and maids deserve to be in the same class and both be given exemptions to this law? I’m assuming that they figure it would be very difficult for a business to function without their key executives for 6 months every 3 ½ years, therefore it wouldn’t be a good idea to force businesses to do without their key people like that. But frankly, it’s going to be very difficult for many businesses to do without some of their key employees making less than $30,000 a year for 6 months too. Are they going to have to keep paying for that employee for those 6 months just to make sure they don’t take another job? And is the business going to have to try and hire someone to fill in for that employee for those 6 months? The lawmakers don’t really seem to care the impact this will have on businesses, yet look how they continue to take care of themselves. They made sure to exempt domestic workers from the 6-month exit requirement. God forbid that they should have to pick up after themselves, do their own laundry or cook their own meals for 6 months. So in other words, they see what a disruption it would be in their lives to not have their maids for 6 months, but they don’t seem to care about the disruption to businesses to have to do without employees for 6 months. Now if you ask the legislators, they will tell you it’s because the maids have become like family to them, and their children think of them as second mothers, therefore it would be very disrupting to the family unit to have to send the maids back for 6 months. But how many of you would work your family members like a dog, requiring them to work 12-15 hours a day, 6 days a week, sometimes 7, and only give them $300 a month for it? I suppose there are some legislators up there that would consider doing that to their own family members, but honestly I find it deplorable. And we wonder why the U.S. doesn’t trust us to get our own orders in affair, and to fix our problems. This is a classic example of even when the legislators try to fix a problem, as in the Labor Reform Act, they still can’t get it right and still try to exempt themselves from any pain or inconvenience. Until we show the U.S. that we really mean business, and are going to fix things properly, we should expect no less from them, we asked for this. Thanks legislators, evidently your counterparts in the U.S. Congress and Senate are paying attention, and they have heard you loudly and clearly. Again, do I really need to remind anyone why it’s time to clean house in the legislature in this coming election? This is the same kind of self-serving, garbage legislation they’ve been producing for years, and they still don’t get it. They are not in a class above the rest of us, but it seems that they have come to believe they are. Again, I believe there are a few exceptions up there, but I can count them all on one hand, with a finger or two left over. That’s pretty bad when you consider we have 27 legislators.

Yes, a minimum wage increase was long over due, it should have happened years ago when we promised the U.S. that we would raise our minimum wage. But since we couldn’t be bothered to keep our own promises, the U.S. is helping us to keep it now, and frankly, it could be a lot worse than it is. We should be counting our blessings that we have 7 years to catch up to the national minimum wage. Again, our own lawmakers could have, and should have done something about this long ago, but no, they were too busy trying to figure out how to get away with paying their own domestic workers next to nothing. They succeeded for years, but now the party’s over, and it’s time to start paying people accordingly. Now you need to decide if you really need maids, gardeners and maintenance workers around your house at the new rates. If you do, that’s fine, just pay them accordingly and don’t try cutting any corners, or making them work overtime without paying for it. If you do, I have a hunch it will come back to bite you in the butt when that worker leaves to go home. If you don’t need them or can’t afford them, you need to go down to the Department of Labor and see if you can get out of the contract early. But don’t think you can just keep paying them $300 a month after July 25th and get away with it. I believe that all contract workers will know their rights very soon, and even if they let you get away with paying them a lower amount for now, they will file a complaint against you before leaving, they would be foolish not to. If you have questions about any of this, I recommend you contact the Department of Labor immediately and get the facts. You simply can’t afford to not understand what is happening or how it will affect you.

I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.

Goodbye Vinae, you will be remembered and missed!

Food For Thought 5-25-07

Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.

This is one of those weeks when I knew what I wanted to talk about the week before. There are some very pressing issues just begging for attention and comment, that all changed though last Sunday afternoon. One of the friends that I was supposed to go diving with was late because of an accident on middle road. He told me it was a bad accident, but I didn’t really think much more about it until the next morning. Then I read the story about this beautiful young lady who had just recently turned 17 who was tragically killed in the accident. I sat there for a while feeling very bad for the family, wondering how they were handling this horrible event.

But then the story was brought even closer home as one of my announcers came in and told me who this young lady was, and that I knew her. Her father Ben used to work for me as a salesman, and I still count him as a good friend. I have talked with her mother Nadine many times in the past, and have always enjoyed her company as well. But I have also spent time talking with Vinae, and was always so impressed with her. Now that I knew who it was that we lost in this horrible accident my heart was literally breaking and the pain in my chest was palpable.

It has been a couple years since I have seen Vinae. She always used to come in to wait for her dad when he was working here. I remember the first time Ben introduced me to her, he told me she was a regular listener to my Food For Thought and a fan. I believe she was 12 at that time, and I wondered why a 12 year old would be interested in the things I was talking about, and how much of it she truly understood. But as I talked to her and listened to her, it was obvious this was no ordinary 12 year old. Vinae seemed to have an intelligence and intellect that went far beyond her years. Here was a girl who did understand the issues, and was trying to learn more about them all the time. She obviously truly loved this island she called home, and was concerned about it, and what was happening to it. Whenever I would see her sitting out front waiting for her dad, I would invite her to come in and sit on my couch, since it was more comfortable and to talk about things. She usually declined saying she didn’t want to be a bother, so I would chat with her out there for a few minutes.

As much as I hated losing Ben as a salesman when he left, I think I hated losing those opportunities to chat for a few minutes with Vinae just as much. She was everything that’s right about these islands, she was indeed what we need for the future, a beautiful, intelligent young woman who is concerned about the issues facing us all and has spent plenty of time thinking about them.

Even back when I knew her, it was obvious that she was the kind of big sister that the rest of her siblings loved and looked up to. She was beautiful, poised and confident, just the sort of older sister that every younger sister wants to be like. She had a smile that seemed to just take over a room when she graced you with it. So it came to no surprise to me when I read about her accomplishments in the Miss Teen pageant. I wasn’t the least bit surprised that she walked away with the bulk of the awards. And I smiled to myself as I read that she was truly impressive as she answered the judge’s questions. I bet they were as amazed and impressed with her as I was. I’m sorry I missed out on seeing her in that pageant, and I’m sorry I’ve missed the opportunity of having those little chats with her the last couple of years.

Right now is our time to grieve, to remember all the wonderful things about Vinae, and how she managed to touch each of us in a very personal way. It’s a time to share our stories of her, to laugh and cry with each other, and to be there for her family and let them know we’re there for them. No, this is not the first death that most of us have had to deal with, but somehow that doesn’t seem to make it any easier. She was taken away from us much, much too early. She still had so much to offer and give, she was really just getting to the point where she was going to start living her life.

I talked about losing my good friend and fellow Rotarian Elias Okamura a couple years ago, and how hard that was. But Elias had lived a long and full life; it’s just that most of us didn’t want to let him go, we were used to having Elias there all the time. I do still think of Elias every week, and still miss him all the time, and yes, I still shed tears when I think of him and remember him occasionally. Elias left a real imprint on my life, and I will always be grateful for it. Elias was someone I respected immensely and always looked up to, he was the kind of person I was proud to claim was my friend. To me, Vinae is in the same class as Elias. No, she hasn’t lived as many years or accomplished as many things, but the people she has touched she has affected just as deeply. And from the people I have talked to this past week who knew Vinae, I know that she had that same effect on people.

Depending on your religious views, most of us believe that after death there is a new and glorious life waiting for you. And we try to console ourselves by telling each other that they are better off now and in a much better place. But the truth of the matter is, that death just stinks for those of us that are left behind. Our hearts are breaking and the tears just don’t seem to ever quit. And it’s ok to grieve, to cry over the pain of losing a loved one. I don’t agree with those who tell you that you have to be tough at times like this, and not let your emotions show. Robots don’t have emotions, humans do, and it’s only natural to feel and experience them.

When I lost my father shortly before moving out here, there was one incident that meant the world to me, and still sticks with me to this day. There was an older gentleman, Jim, who had a quarrel with my father years before, and neither of them ever got along after that. I had moved back to my hometown and had become friends with this older gentleman - we were golfing buddies. My father had ended his own life and left me pretty much totally devastated. On the first night of visitation at the funeral home, Jim was the first person to arrive. He was a retired state trooper, a bear of a man who had a reputation of being tough as steel. He had this tough, calloused exterior that most people never saw through, but for whatever reason, he let me get to know the real Jim. He walked in with tears in his eyes; he came straight to me and just wrapped me up in a big bear hug. We both just openly sobbed together. He didn’t have any magic words to make everything better or to make the pain go away, but he was willing to be there and to share the pain with me. That gesture meant more to me than anything else, and he knew it, which is why he was there and was willing to show his tender side, something which most people, even some of his family members never knew existed. The last time I was in the states, Jim was dying of cancer, and didn’t have much time left. He was refusing all visitors, as he didn’t want anyone to see him in that condition. I called his wife and told her I was back for a short time and asked if there was any way that Jim might agree to see me. When he found out it was me, he told me of course I could come. It was hard seeing my old golfing buddy withering away and in that condition, and I didn’t have any words of wisdom or magic cures. But Jim knew why I was there, and that visit meant the world to both of us. Words didn’t really need to be spoken; it was the hearts that were communicating.

I share all this to let you know that it’s ok if you don’t have any magic words to say to the family or loved ones when you go to Vinae’s funeral, just being there to share a hug and the tears will mean more than any words ever could. This is a time when the family needs all the love and support they can get. It is appropriate that the funeral is on Memorial Day. The public viewing for Vinae starts at 9 am Monday morning at the Mount Carmel Cathedral, the Mass of Christian Burial will be at 11 am and Internment services will be at noon. I would encourage you to go to the funeral for Vinae if you knew her or the family and to be there for them, just showing them that you love them and care.
And for those who didn’t know Vinae, or the family, I would like to encourage you to go to the new Veteran’s Cemetery in Marpi for the Memorial Day Service honoring our fallen soldiers. We all owe these fallen soldiers a debt of gratitude we can never repay, and at the very least we owe the families of the soldiers that are left behind our support. This is such a small way to show our support and appreciation, but it is one that truly makes a difference to the families left behind. Too many times Memorial Day is just another day off, and another excuse to go the beach for a party. This year let’s remember what Memorial Day is really all about and pay our proper respects to our heroes and show our support to their families. You will still have all afternoon for your parties and get togethers, but let’s pack out our new Veteran’s Cemetery and show the families of our fallen soldiers that we truly appreciate their sacrifice and service. The service starts at 9 am Monday morning at the Veteran’s Cemetery, which is located on the road going to Bonzai Cliff.

Vinae you will be remembered and missed, and to all of our fallen soldiers, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.

A little follow up from last week, and the situation brewing at D.P.S.

Food For Thought 5-18-07

Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.

This week I have several issues that I want to touch on, and am having a hard time trying to decide where to start. I guess the most logical is to deal with a little bit of clean up from last week. I got an unusually large amount of feedback on the topic of getting some new people to run for office as independent candidates. Everyone but one person thought the topic was great and very enlightening; they had no idea just how easy it was to run for office and what the qualifications were. The vast majority of them commented that they were sick of the political parties, and the kind of candidates they tend to endorse and support. They were also tired of the traditional style of campaigning that happens here, and agree that they would be much more likely to vote for a candidate who is independent and doesn’t do the typical pocket meetings and signs. It is important to mention here that well over half of the people who made these comments were indigenous locals. One person told me they disagreed with me on the importance of parties, that she believes we have to follow the parties and let them select the candidates for us. But then in the next breath, she said that our system has failed us miserably and we need to get some new candidates in who will actually try to fix things.

I believe that this election will be an election of change; I honestly can’t see people retaining the politicians who have let them down and failed them miserably. Honestly are you really willing to put people back in just because of family ties, even though they have shown repeatedly they don’t have the communities best interests at heart? Are you really willing to vote for legislators who reduced your pay by 10%, but weren’t willing to take the cuts themselves even though they gave themselves the Austerity Friday’s off as well? If I were a government employee, I would be especially outraged at that kind of arrogance and insensitivity. They outrage me anyway, even though I’m not a government employee, and can promise you that not a single one of them will get my vote. The real key here to change in the coming election is getting some good, viable independent candidates willing to put their names on the ballot. You won’t have to campaign to get my vote, just clearly tell me what you plan on doing that will be different. I believe that’s what the majority of voters will be looking for in this coming election.

Next topic, let’s talk about the petition circulating among the police officers to remove the Commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, Rebecca Warfield. I need to start by saying I have not seen the petition, and honestly I have no interest in seeing it. This is not the first time the police officers have tried such a stunt, they did it with Mark Williams as well. And because their efforts resulted in the Governor’s firing of Williams, they have decided to try it again. It is my understanding that the police officers are claiming that there is an organizational breakdown and procedural breakdown. Now it was true that Williams didn’t have a police department background, he was a career military man. Some of the police officers claimed he was too militaristic, used too much bad language, and I’m guessing hurt their feelings by requiring them to get off their backsides and do their jobs. For example, some of them preferred to sit in their air-conditioned cars watching the chaos at stoplights during the power outages. They didn’t seem to want to get out and actually have to direct traffic, even though that would have made it much safer. Williams wouldn’t stand for such a thing and actually demanded that they get out of their air conditioned cars, stand in the heat for a couple hours, and direct traffic, thus avoiding potential accidents during power outages. How dare he demand they actually do their job and promote traffic safety? Of all the nerve, no wonder they demanded he had to go. By the way, in case the sarcasm has gone over your head, those last couple sentences were dripping with it.

And now we have Rebecca Warfield, an attorney with no police department experience either heading up the Department of Public Safety. She also seems to expect them to do their jobs, but she has taken it a step further even, she is demanding they get it done with no overtime. Instead of letting the officers double their salary through excessive and abusive overtime, Commissioner Warfield is trying to put through another class of cadets who will be able to help fill some of the holes in a staff short department. She has been given orders from her boss, the Governor, to cut the department’s budget, and one of the quickest ways to do that is to cut out all the overtime. It’s no secret that DPS has been extremely abusive in the amount of overtime that was claimed in the past. I remember a couple of the examples I looked at, the officer would have had to work 20 hours a day, 7 days a week to justify the amount of overtime he was being paid. Obviously there were some problems there, and the fact that it was being allowed by those in charge was also a huge problem that the last administration never wanted to address. I will be the first to point out that the $17,000 salary for a police officer is ridiculous, it is a disgrace really. It’s no wonder that the officers tried to get as much overtime as they possibly could when they were being paid such a ridiculously low salary. Again, this is something that should have been addressed by the legislature a long time ago, but no, that bunch was too busy trying to figure out how to keep their own salary and avoid the cuts they were inflicting on everybody else. But I can definitely understand why the police officers would be unhappy at only making $17,000 a year and not getting any overtime now. But again, let’s lay the blame where it truly belongs, and that is on the legislature, not on Commissioner Warfield.

I have no doubt that Commissioner Warfield does things differently than her predecessors had, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing considering the way the department had been run for years. In years past people had been promoted and given positions based on their political party affiliation and family ties, in many cases even though they had no training or qualifications to do the job. Honestly, I can’t see Commissioner Warfield operating that way, and I would expect that she would attempt to rectify as many of those situations as she could. But that doesn’t make the officers in those positions very happy, and I can see where they might want to get rid of her and try to get one of the gold old boys back in that position.

The real question here is how the Governor will handle this latest coup attempt. The last time he gave in to the officer’s demands and removed Mark Williams from the position. Did the officers have legitimate concerns that the Governor felt compelled him to remove Williams? Possibly, but the Governor never really make the reasons behind his decision public, so it is purely speculation at this point. I did make it a point to ask the Governor at the time what he would do the next time the officers decided they didn’t like their boss and tried circulating a petition again. He responded that they had better never try it again, or the next time there would be a number of police officers looking for a new job, and he would never tolerate that kind of behavior on the force again. So here we are again, with a petition signed by over 80 police officers seeking to have the Governor remove Rebecca Warfield from her position. So will the Governor cave in to the pressure from the officers once again, or will he clean house in the department like he said he would do if they ever tried this again? I believe that Rebecca Warfield is doing the best she can in that position with the limited resources at her disposal, and I would hope that she would be backed up and given the support she deserves.

I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.

It's time to fix one of our problems at the source, we need a fresh crop of lawmakers this November.

Food For Thought 5-11-07

Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.

Before I launch into my topic today, I feel it’s only fair that this commentary should come with a warning, kind of like the movies that say, “Warning, this movie contains scenes that may not be suitable for all viewers”. So here is mine, “Warning, this commentary contains thoughts and ideas that politicians will find extremely objectionable. It will most likely cause a severe case of nausea for above-mentioned individuals, and it also has a very good probability of costing them their jobs and their power and influence. All career politicians may want to do everything within their power to make sure that as few people hear or read this commentary as possible”. Now that we have that little detail covered, I feel that I can launch into a topic I’ve wanted to talk about for a very long time.

I have been carefully watching everything that has been happening in government and politics in the CNMI for the last 10 years and I have come to a few conclusions. #1 – I don’t believe that the political parties that have been operating in the CNMI serve the interests or the needs of the people. They have been full of cronyism, dirty deals, lies, manipulation, and they have actively been trying to get people elected for all the wrong reasons. Elections in the past have been determined by how many jobs you promised to various families, who could spend the most in advertising leading up to the election, and by who provides the most beer and food at the pocket meetings. And let’s be honest here for a minute about “pocket meetings”, they are nothing but a chance for the politicians to try buying your votes with food and alcohol. Politicians for years have been making empty promises at these pocket meetings and saying the same old things. So if nothing new is ever really said at them, and you can’t really believe anything that’s said anyway, why continue to have them? The answer is simple; it’s a way to bribe the voters with beer and food! We can pretend they have a deeper meaning that that if you wish, but it would have to be pretending, because we all know better. Vote buying has a long and colorful history here. Although it’s not usually giving cash in exchange for a promise of a vote, that has happened as well. Our candidates have done everything from paying for voter’s utility bills, buying caskets for voters when a loved one passes away, making car payments and the list goes on and on. It has been a very corrupt system, one that encourages dishonesty, and yet for many years people have had their hands out seeing what they could get from the various candidates. When we elect our leaders through a corrupt system, and encourage them to play by those rules, why should we be surprised when the politicians turn out to be corrupt and incompetent, what other kind of leaders would you expect?

Some of the politicians will try fooling us by telling us that politics is only something they engage in before the election, that once they are elected they put politics behind them and then their loyalty is to the voters. Can I be perfectly blunt for a minute? That is a complete load of crap in almost all of the cases. I remember right after Juan Babauta was elected as Governor; he had a hissy fit because someone dared used the color green for something in the Executive Office. Green was the official color for the Covenant Party, and of course Babauta was a Republican. Politics dead – yeah right, and if you eat enough beans you will have all the gas you need to power your new environmentally friendly methane powered car! And if politics is dead after the election in the legislature, then why do we have such things as the majority and minority? That’s all about who has the numbers for control of the respective Houses. The party that has the most members and can persuade the most people to defect and join them in return for powerful chairmanships and additional funding becomes the majority, and the rest of the unlucky saps then become the minority. They get the offices on the outer fringes, they don’t get any chairmanships, and they certainly don’t get much additional funding. Politics and party loyalty are always alive and well in our current system, it thrives on it, and it gives the party leaders the influence they need to control their party members votes on critical legislation. After all, if you don’t vote the way I want you to, you may find yourself without a party in the upcoming election.

I have come to the conclusion that in order for us to fix anything in our broken down and messed up government; the change needs to start in the legislature. It is after all the law making body, and the body that is supposed to have oversight of the budget and number of employees. The Governor can only do so much unless he has control of both Houses of the legislature. If he does, he can push his own agenda and accomplish almost anything he wants, but if he doesn’t it becomes a stalemate, unless the legislature comes up with the votes to override any potential vetoes from the Governor. But I have not seen our legislature work properly the entire time I’ve been on island. It seems to be a bunch that wants a nice cushy job that they can build toward a government retirement. I have seen a few that I believe were there for the right reasons, but they are in the vast minority.

So if the place that the change needs to start is in the legislature, do you really think we can count on the same ones that have been there for years to implement the needed changes? If you do, you might want to start stocking up on beans and shopping for that new methane powered automobile. And if you think that the political parties are going to embrace candidates who want real change and who will rock the boat, you’re sadly mistaken as well. We need a clean sweep in the legislature, with a couple possible exceptions. Honestly, I can only think of two people up there that I think deserve another term based on their performance thus far. We know that our political parties won’t do what needs to be done, so what do we do, start another party? The Covenant Party did that a few years ago, and now look at them, they are the same as the other parties, and a part of the problem, not a part of the solution. Honestly I believe that running under any party banner will be the kiss of death in this coming election. Educated voters are sick of all the junk they’ve been seeing from the parties the last several years, and they will be looking for alternatives in this coming election. I believe what we really need is a good crop of independent candidates, not recycled political hacks. Candidates who will vote based on their conscience and voter input and feedback, not who are more concerned about party loyalties and deals. And if they don’t have any political experience, is that really a bad thing? Honestly, do we have to take a look at where voting on political experience has gotten us? Isn’t this supposed to be a government of the people and for the people? I can’t think of a better way to make that happen than to get some people running for office that truly love this place and want to see it improve, no matter what it takes. Forget the party loyalties, and forget the old way of campaigning. How bad do you want change? How much worse do things have to get before we realize we need to change the way we do things?

Do you realize that you don’t necessarily have to give up your day job right now to be in the legislature? There are some exceptions, such as if you work for the government, however there is nothing that says you have to give up your private sector job if you are a congressman or a senator. And the truth of the matter is, being a congressman or a senator is not a full time job, even though they have turned it into one for themselves. I have talked to quite a few people recently about running for office, and it seems that everybody has some misconceptions about the qualifications and the costs involved in running for office. Some people told me they thought you had to pay a $10,000, $25,000 or $50,000 fee just in order to run. Now it is possible that the parties themselves have some kind of financial requirement if you want to run under their banner.

But let me tell you all that is required if you want to run as an independent candidate. If you want to run for the House of Representatives you must be at least 21 years of age, have lived in the Commonwealth for 5 years, be a U.S. citizen and be registered to vote in the precinct you are running for, and have no felony convictions. That’s it, not very tough is it? Then you must gather the signatures of 5% of the voters in your precinct or 50 signatures, whichever is less, and pay a $100 filing fee to the Board of Elections. That’s all there is to and your name will appear on the ballot in the coming election. If you want to run for the senate, you must be at least 25 years of age, have lived in the Commonwealth for 5 years, be a U.S. citizen and be registered to vote in your senatorial district, and have no felony convictions. Again you must gather signatures of 5% of the voters in your senatorial district or 100 signatures, whichever is less, and pay a $250 filing fee to the Board of Elections. It’s really not that difficult to run for office, and if you decide to skip the whole political party circus, it is even easier.

I would like to see a new crop of candidates in this upcoming election, who are ready to overhaul a broken system and show us that things can be done differently. I’d like to see them run independent, and forget about trying to buy the election through signs and advertising. Take the opportunities for interviews in the newspaper, radio and TV, and tell us why you are running for office and what some of your ideas are. I don’t expect to see you or hear you at pocket meetings in my neighborhood, and typically I refuse to vote for anyone who does that kind of campaigning anyway. If you approach it this way, you won’t have to worry about having fundraisers or taking out loans. I truly believe the voting public is looking for something different this election, are you going to be a part of the new solution? If you’re elected, it won’t be easy, and there will be many difficult decisions awaiting you, but wouldn’t it be exciting to be a part of the solution instead?

I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.

A few comments on the Governor's State of the Commonwealth Address, and customer service, or the lack thereof at C.U.C.

Food For Thought 5-4-07

Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.

Last week Governor Fitial gave his State of the Commonwealth Address, and I didn’t say a word about it last week in Food For Thought because I had an interview with Ricky Delgado Jr. all set to air instead. Frankly, I thought Ricky had some good things to say, and certainly gave us some of his own food for thought. But this week I’ve had several people come up to me asking why I didn’t have any comments on the Governor’s State of the Commonwealth speech. Most of the people who approached me on the matter seemed to think that I should be getting after the Governor for all his massive cuts.

As a matter of fact, I do have a few comments on the whole thing, but it may not be quite what some people were hoping for. The Governor started off by saying that he announced the government was broke last year, and we are still broke this year. He seemed to be fairly candid about our financial situation saying that further cuts will most likely be needed. At least he wasn’t ignoring what was so painfully obvious to the rest of us like his predecessor seemed to like to do. But why would I criticize the Governor for making cuts that I have been saying needed to be made for the past 5-½ years? I have been routinely saying that if this government didn’t start living within its means we would be completely bankrupt in no time.

There were a couple things I took issue with though, one of which was the big announcement. I don’t know if I dozed off at that particular moment, or if the Governor’s speechwriters just forgot to put it in his speech, but I certainly didn’t hear any big surprise or announcement. I heard the Governor talking about several proposed investments into the CNMI, which he claimed would all be breaking ground by the end of the year. Was that the big announcement? Because to be honest we have heard such things from the Governor before and we’re still waiting. Now most of us are taking a “we’ll believe it when we see it” attitude toward such announcements.

We heard him tell us when he was campaigning for Governor that he had various businesses lined up to come to Saipan, all they were waiting for was him to be elected governor. So whatever happened to the shoe factory or the peanut butter factory? Whatever happened to the floating hotel that was going to be located across from Kristo Rai church? Remember, that’s why the Governor refused to give that land for the farmers market, he said he had an investor ready to build there. The Governor claimed to have very close ties to all these major investors and businessmen that would flock to the CNMI if only he were governor. We were also supposed to see the return of the airlines if we elected him as governor, and we’re still waiting on that too. We were told that as soon as he was elected governor, he would do away with the fuel surcharge on our C.U.C. utility bills. But nothing happened for nearly 8 months, and then instead of eliminating it and cutting down on our bills, they increased it even further making our bills skyrocket past anything we’d ever seen before. Now I’m not saying that there shouldn’t have been an increase in our utility rates to cover the costs, I’m just saying that the Governor shouldn’t have promised something while campaigning that he knew he could never deliver on. I even have the Governor on tape telling me that not only would he eliminate the fuel surcharge, but also that he would even further lower the rates. Was he really just that out of touch with reality about the situation at the utility, or was he just saying whatever he thought we wanted to hear to get votes? It erodes his credibility and makes all of us that much more skeptical the next time he tells us something is going to happen. The bottom line here is don’t be promising things you can’t deliver on, or try to encourage us by telling us about developments that may or may not ever happen. So if the big announcement was all these “supposed” new developments, I think you can understand why we might be a bit skeptical, and would have wondered if we missed the announcement all together.

I also didn’t buy his assessment of meeting a balanced budget last year, and even having a small surplus. That was only accomplished because the government stopped making it’s contribution to the retirement fund, and because they suspended the payout of tax rebates and refunds for that year. That would be like me claiming I have managed to put thousands of dollars into savings this year, even though I had to stop making my regular payments to do it. So did I really save money, or am I just fooling myself by putting off other debts? The administration can try spinning it any way they want, but the truth of the matter is they did not meet all their financial obligations last year, they didn’t even come close to it. Yes, I believe the Governor deserves some credit for the cuts that were made, and trying to cut down on the ridiculous government spending, but let’s not fool ourselves, we didn’t live within our means, and we didn’t really achieve a balanced budget, we just put off paying our bills.

One of the things I was hoping would really make a difference was a government wide jobs audit the Governor said they were going to do last year, to determine if some jobs were duplicating functions, and see if government employees were really earning their pay or not. The private sector has been saying for years that this government is hugely bloated, and that government jobs need to be cut. Many of us have also been saying that there are many government employees who are simply horrible in their jobs and don’t even try because they know they have civil service protection.

I found a perfect example of why our government needs a healthy dose of customer service training this past week. I had just moved, and wanted to have power turned off at my former apartment. My wife tried calling C.U.C. to notify them and have them turn off the power, but she was told that I had to come down there and do it in person, since the account was in my name. Ok, I guess that makes some kind of sense, since you don’t want people just calling up C.U.C. and disconnecting someone else’s power, so I went to their office in the Joeten Dan Dan building, expecting I would just have to go sign a form and be done with it. I was greeted at the door with a long line of customers all waiting their turn to talk to a customer service representative, so I went, took a number and then took a seat. For the first 15 minutes it doesn’t really hit you, you’re expecting to be called any minute. Then you hear them call the number, it’s number 13, and you’re number 23, now it starts to sink in. You realize you’ve been there over 15 minutes and they just called their first number, so you start doing the math and you realize you’re in for at least a couple hour wait.

Yes, it’s true that there were 2 or 3 customer service representatives, but they weren’t all there all the time, one of them seemed to disappear for long periods at a time. I’m not talking 5 or 10 minutes, I’m talking 30 minutes to an hour at a time, and this is in the middle of the afternoon. After you’ve been there for an hour, you realize they are taking an average of 30 minutes with each customer. How is that possible? What could they possibly have to talk about that could take up that much time? I believe that many of the customers were there to try and get some kind of payment plan worked out so their power wasn’t shut off. And from my observation, it wasn’t the customers that were taking up all the time by talking, they seemed to be sitting there waiting while the customer service representative took off to parts unknown, only to return 15-30 minutes later.

The one that really got my blood boiling though was a customer service representative who had her customer go get in line at the payment window. She just sat there while he went to make his payment, she didn’t call the next number or wait on anyone else, she just sat there, sitting, waiting, and waiting, and waiting. He finally got through the payment line about 25 minutes later, he came back to her window, showed her his receipt, and then he left. She took his receipt, made a note of it, and let him go. She didn’t seem to have any further business with him other than to see that he indeed made his payment. But rather than start waiting on the next customer, since there were at least 15 people waiting at that point, she just sat there wasting 25 minutes waiting for him to bring back his receipt. She obviously didn’t care that there was a long line of people waiting to be helped; she was going to take her sweet time, and not do another thing until he brought back his receipt. If that lady had worked for me, I would have fired her on the spot. The private sector can’t tolerate that kind of sloppy work ethic and horrible customer service; we wouldn’t have any customers if we did. The government is the only one who can get away with such terrible service, you have to do business with them, they have a monopoly and you don’t have any choice in the matter. The employees know they don’t have to worry about performance evaluations or competition; they are civil service employees and are protected. And the government wonders why we have been pushing so hard for privatization of certain government services. With government employees like that, you’re wasting all of your customers time and money, and you are a huge part of the problem. I have had certain elected officials ask me where I would start to clean up the mess in government and what I would do about it. Since I spent over 4 hours sitting in lines at C.U.C. and the Department of Finance that day, that seems like as good a spot to start as any. If you have employees there that are too slow or don’t care about good customer service, get rid of them, reassign them or do whatever you have to, but put people in there who can move the customers through at a reasonable pace. When was the last time you did an assessment of your customer service and took a look at whether you were meeting your customers needs or not? If you need a place to start, those two are it!

I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.

The Virginia Tech murders should shake all of us up, but maybe not for the reasons you're thinking.

Food For Thought 4-20-07

Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.

The entire world is in shock over what happened at Virginia Tech this past week when a psychotic student went on a rampage killing 32 other people on the campus before finally killing himself. The magnitude of what he did and the horror of it leave you in a state of disbelief at first, until you start to see some of the video footage of the body bags and blood. But even when you see it, it seems almost surreal, as if you’re watching a movie, something that can’t possibly be real. After all, you have to ask yourself how someone could be filled with so much hate that he could intentionally kill that many people. But it wasn’t just about hate, and I don’t believe you can just blame it on him being crazy. All evidence would seem to be to the contrary. He went to the campus that day with every intention of killing a lot of people; he went prepared with weapons, extra ammo clips, and chains to secure the doors so people couldn’t escape before he could kill them. That takes careful thought and preparation, not something you just do on a whim.

To me the most alarming part of this is that it seems to happening more and more frequently. After the Columbine killings, we heard all kinds of speeches about making sure that nothing like this could ever happen again, but we knew those were empty words. Unless you take away every gun in the country, which we all know is not possible, there will still be shootings. We have passed laws making it tougher to buy a gun, that’s what the Brady Bill was all about. But to someone who wants a gun to wreak havoc, it’s really not that difficult to get one, even legally. Laws like that one may cut down on spur of the moment violence, the kind that is triggered by emotion, but it won’t do anything to deter these types of crimes. In both the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres, the killers had planned it out and set out to kill as many as they could. Passing gun control laws, or trying to outlaw them all together won’t work, because criminals will always be able to get guns one way or another. We have very strict gun control laws here in the CNMI, and yet we continue to see armed robberies and have seen several shootings over the years, so obviously outlawing guns isn’t going to stop anything.

50-75 years ago we didn’t see these types of random and senseless violence. Yes, of course there were problems with violence, we had Al Capone, mobsters and the carnage that went along with them, but it was different. They didn’t go into schools or grocery stores just shooting up people because they were mad at the world, their violence was usually directed at rival gangs, it was usually contained to those they had a quarrel with. Yes, there were those who seemed to think they had the right to inflict harm and death on those around them; some of their names were Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, and they were the reason that we had a world war. We have seen some of the same sort more recently with names like Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. It has been said that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and I believe we have more than enough examples to give credence to that theory. It seems that once these madmen gained the power, then they could live out all their horrific fantasies and live by their own rules.

But what is going on with the random violence we are seeing in America the last 10-15 years? It’s not like these kids have absolute power so that they can do whatever they feel like, or do they? What has changed, why do they all the sudden feel they don’t have to live by everyone else’s rules? Could it be that they have been desensitized to violence to the point that they think it’s an acceptable way to deal with your anger and frustrations? And if so, how did that happen? If you really don’t know the answer to that question, you’re badly out of touch with what has been passed off as entertainment for the last 30 years. Our movies have gotten bloodier and gorier over the years, and have shown over and over that killing those who stand in your way is an acceptable way of dealing with your problems. If you think I’m overreacting, maybe you should go back and watch the Rambo, Terminator and Matrix movies and see if I’m not right. We have been sending out very dangerous messages in the form of entertainment for years. And we have a whole generation of who has been raised on these messages, and can quote most of the movies back to you line for line. Now that doesn’t mean that everyone who watches those movies will turn out to be a mass murderer, but I do believe it means that those who may not be wired the same as the rest of us may be encouraged to express their anger and frustrations in a very violent manner.

And when you couple that with some of the trash that’s being passed off as music these days, you can see how it could definitely warp a person’s thinking after years of prolonged exposure to it. I don’t know how closely you’ve ever listened to the lyrics of some of the rap music lately, but it’s just plain despicable. If you don’t believe me, tune it in for an hour or so and listen closely to what’s being said, I think you’ll be shocked if you’re not used to listening to it. Women are routinely referred to as Ho’s, and I don’t think there’s any way you can spin that to turn it into something positive. When you listen to that for hours and hours every day, and it tells you over and over that women are only good for one thing, it begins to shape your thinking and your attitudes.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that these mass murders are all the fault of the movie and music industry, however, I do believe they are significant contributing factors. I believe it is important what you allow your children to be exposed to when they are very young, those are their formative years, and so much of how they will think and feel about things is determined in those early years. Back in the early days of computers I remember a sign I saw that was attached to the computer, it said “Garbage in – Garbage out”. In other words the computer is basically a blank slate, and is only as good as what you put into it. If you put in bad information, or garbage, you can only expect to get garbage back out of the computer, after all, that is what you filled it with. But if you put in good information, you will get good information back out of it. Young children are much like computers in that respect, whatever you fill them with is what you can expect to get back out of them. That is a concept that should scare some parents to death when they think back on all the things they’ve let their kids see and listen to. Many parents don’t seem to think it makes any difference what your kids are exposed to, but I believe that is a na├»ve and mistaken approach, one that society will ultimately pay for.
I think our justice system has also failed us miserably. We have made it so that the criminals have more rights than the victims, and that’s just wrong. We let criminals loose on technicalities even though we know they are guilty. We slap them on the wrists and put them in counseling fooling ourselves into thinking we have rehabilitated them. I can remember a situation we had here not too many years ago when a rapist was let out of prison for the weekend to go to a rosary. Punishment doesn’t really mean much, and thus it holds no deterrent effect. We have lawyers who have become filthy rich finding technicalities to get murderers and rapists off scott free, letting them go back out to find their next victim. These lawyers and judges then become partners in the criminal’s future crimes, since they made it possible for them to happen. If only we could hold them responsible for their role in it. I realize this view won’t be looked upon favorably by the lawyers and judges among us, but the truth is the truth, and sometimes it hurts when it hits a little too close to home. How many of you have enriched yourselves on money that you know is tainted and dirty? How many of you have had to put your conscience on the shelf so that you can effectively do your jobs? When is the last time you turned down a case because it turned your stomach, even though the client could afford to pay big bucks?

We have a problem as a society, and it’s not going to be getting better the way things are going, it will only get worse. We will see more Columbines and more Virginia Tech’s, and we will continue to ask what went wrong, why didn’t anyone catch them before it was too late. And yet we will keep making movies that glamorize killing and crime, we will keep recording songs that talk about popping a cap on your enemies and sexy Ho’s, and we’ll let our young children listen to it thinking that those attitudes are perfectly fine. And the lawyers aren’t about to give up defending criminals, murderers and rapists, trying everything they can to get them off on technicalities or by confusing juries, there is simply way too much money in it. And after all, it takes a lot of money to maintain the standard of living that many of them have become accustomed to. So they can’t afford to go letting their conscience get in the way of a good case or a big payday, it’s all about the money.

And we will continue to lose brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers and friends to senseless violence that will leave us all puzzled and confused. And yet, it’s really not as puzzling or confusing as we make it out to be, we just really don’t want to find the answers because they might infringe on our personal rights or tastes. After all, we all loved Rocky, he was the underdog who made good, and we’d all like to believe that could be us. We identified with Rocky and wanted to believe it was possible. So then when Rocky turned into Rambo, we all flocked to see him again because he was after all our underdog hero. And he was still in character as an underdog, but now he had to kill people in his role, and he did so with flair, making it look sexy and macho. Fortunately all of us haven’t turned out to be killers, but to those of us who aren’t wired the same, I don’t think it’s a real stretch to see how these things could have had a detrimental impact on them and made them believe that they too could be a hero just like Neo or Rambo.

I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.

Is the government playing by the rules when it comes to issuing tax refunds?

Food For Thought 4-13-07

Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.

I’ve got a few different things on my mind this week, and with any luck we’ll be able to cover them all before we run out of time. Since this is the weekend that the tax deadline falls on, I feel it’s a good time to discuss the budding class action lawsuit against the government for not giving tax refunds to taxpayers in a timely manner. The main problem here is that the government, and I’m referring to the CNMI government, requires you to pay your taxes or to file them by April 15th each year, this year it will be the 17th because the 15th falls on a weekend. Now it’s true that they have every right to do that, but the problem comes in when it comes to the other deadline, the deadline for the government to pay back tax refunds to taxpayers who overpaid their taxes the year before. It’s surprising how many people I talked to who should have known this information, but none of them had any clue.

The first thing I found out was that the Commonwealth Code does deal with the situation. 4 CMC 1809 states that “If it shall be shown, upon application of an employee, that there has been withheld from wages or salaries any tax not due, or more than the amount of tax due thereon, or that the employee has paid from his wages and salaries any tax not due or more than the amount of tax, or if it is shown upon application of the business that it has paid an amount not due as tax under this division or greater than the tax levied under this division, then the director shall refund the amount found to have been overpaid or otherwise not due and shall pay such refund out of current collections of the tax. Prior to granting any refund, the director shall determine within 90 days after an application for refund has been submitted that:
(1) The amount so overpaid or otherwise not due has been paid to the Commonwealth.
(2) The amount of refund claimed has not been used as a credit or deduction against any tax or taxes due and payable to the Commonwealth from such employee; and…
(3) Application for such refund was filed within one year after the end of the calendar year in which the amount to be refunded was withheld or paid.”

Let’s see if we can get rid of some of the legal speak written in the Commonwealth Code and get to the essence of what is being said here. Basically if you have had more taxes withheld than what you owe, then the Director of Finance shall refund the amount that was overpaid. It doesn’t say he may refund the amount, it says he shall, therefore creating a legal obligation of the government to give back the money that you have overpaid. The Code also gives the director 90 days to make sure that the overpayment has actually been made to the Commonwealth, to make sure the amount to be refunded has not been used as a credit or deduction against any other taxes, and to make sure the application for refund was filed within one year after the end of the calendar year the taxes were paid. That all seems pretty straightforward, and it even gives the director of finance some pretty clear-cut time deadlines. He has 90 days from the time of filing of the application to make sure that you are really entitled to the refund, and after that he shall refund the amount that was overpaid, and he shall pay it out of the current collections of the tax. There is no mention made in this part of the Commonwealth Code of a special trust account that is to be maintained for the express purpose of paying back tax refunds. It says specifically that the refunds are to be paid out of the current collections of the tax.

Then tax refunds are again mentioned in the CNMI Regulations 2206-12D. It states that tax refunds are to be paid out as soon as is practical, but no later than 6 months from the due date of the return, or from the date of filing, whichever is later. That means that as long as you filed your taxes by the April 15th deadline, the government has until October 15th, or 6 months later to pay back your tax refund. If you filed your taxes later because of an extension or other circumstances, then the government would have 6 months from the date of your filing to refund the amount of overpayment.

It is my understanding that the government last year passed some kind of regulation allowing them to suspend the payment of the 2005 tax refunds due to their financially cash strapped position. I have determined that this wasn’t through a law that went through the legislature, but I really haven’t been able to get a straight answer out of anybody else as to just how this was accomplished. However, it is my understanding that this suspension only applied to tax refunds for tax year 2005, therefore the government still owes and is still paying tax refunds for years 2002, 2003 and 2004, and would owe them now for tax year 2006.

So my question would be, and I’m guessing this is also the impetus behind this class action lawsuit, why has the government been allowed to go beyond their 6-month deadline for 2002, 2003 and 2004? After all if you didn’t pay your taxes on time in any of those years the government wouldn’t have been nearly as easy on you as it’s being on itself. At the very least you would have had to pay interest and penalties. I don’t believe the government is paying any interest on their long overdue refunds. That means they’ve taken and used your money, they blown off the deadlines to refund it, and they aren’t giving you anything for it. If you had done that, they would call it criminal and charge you for it. The government is clearly living by a double standard, and not living up to it’s end of the bargain.

The fault is not all on this administration, although I don’t believe they can get off as easy as they are trying to tell you either. What the Babauta administration did was absolutely criminal, and they should be held responsible for it. So why haven’t they been? Why have we seen no prosecutions of any of the officials of that administration for their misdeeds while in office? I’ve been told they are coming, just be patient. But just how patient do we need to be; it’s been nearly a year and a half now and still nothing. That is why we continue to have politicians who lie, cheat and steal, because they know they can get away with it and no one will ever hold them accountable for it. It’s just like our former Secretary of Finance, Fermin Atalig, who misused his government credit card to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, and then he defaulted on his repayment agreement. And Governor Babauta punished him by appointing him to be Secretary of Finance in his administration. During the time that Fermin was the Secretary of Finance, his debt to the Commonwealth only grew, because his payments weren’t even enough to cover the interest payments. The point here is our government doesn’t really seem to care if our government officials abuse their positions and steal from all of us, in fact in many cases they seem to be rewarded for it, as Fermin was. And at best, they are usually only required to do some kind of a token repayment plan that never even comes close to paying off the actual debt.

If this administration were really as serious about cleaning things up as it claims, we would be seeing prosecutions and serious attempts to collect amounts owed to the government But so far, I’m not seeing it from this administration, I’m only hearing lip service and watching them blame everybody else. Let’s keep in mind that Ben Fitial is no newcomer to politics, he can’t say he wasn’t involved in what happened before because he has been in the legislature for many years, nearly all of them as Speaker of the House.

I have heard this administration blame the previous administration for raiding the trust account that is supposed to be used to pay tax refunds. But according to the Commonwealth Code we mentioned earlier, which is currently on the books by the way, the Director of Finance is to pay refunds out of current tax collections, not out of some special account. And because of that wording, it completely takes away the excuse that the account was empty when you took office, since you’re supposed to be paying the refunds as you go out of the current tax collections.

I think this class action lawsuit that is being formed against the government has a very good chance of succeeding, as the governments position seems to be extremely weak. I’ll be attempting to get the attorneys behind it on the talk show in the coming weeks to explain what is going on with it, and who is eligible to sign up for it.

And in light of what is going on with tax refunds being issued by the government, a word to the wise. If you are supposed to be getting a big refund this year because you have paid too much in to the government, you will be waiting for it for years and years, if you ever see it at all. So with that in mind, you need to change the withholding on your W-4 form with your employer. You need to start claiming more exemptions so that they don’t hold so much money out of your check. The key is to get it as close to having a zero refund as possible. It might be better to have to pay a little bit in when you file your taxes then have to wait for a big refund that may never come. Otherwise you are just letting the government use your money for free, and if and when they ever get around to paying it back, it certainly won’t be with any interest. But if you don’t mind letting the government use your money, never knowing if or when you’ll get it back, then carry on my wayward friend.

I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.

Fact finding trips or dog & pony shows?

Food For Thought 4-6-07

Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.

I’m getting a very bad feeling in the pit of my stomach about the recent visits we’ve received from U.S. Congressional staffers. First it was Allen Stayman and Josh Johnson, two senate staffers sent out here on a “fact finding” trip. Some of those who have known Mr. Stayman for years said that they felt he really understood our situation this time and was looking at us with a different outlook. From his answers to some of my questions, I was less than convinced. It seemed to me that he came out with a definite agenda and wasn’t really willing to budge too far from it. His reasons for the actions being considered were vague and there really wasn’t any substance to them. He went so far as to say he was one of our biggest supporters and that nobody would care about our concerns as much as he would. There were even a few people out here who believed him, I was not one of them.

Then on Thursday of this past week, some U.S. Congressional staffers paid us a visit. Again it was supposed to be an information-gathering trip to help them in drafting bills that will be dealing with the implementation of federal control of our immigration and minimum wage. The one thing I do have to give credit to Mr. Stayman and Johnson for is that they actually spent enough time out here to hear from many different segments of the community. They allotted enough time that they could actually sit and listen to the various groups and gather their thoughts and concerns. This last bunch came in Thursday morning and left the same afternoon. I understand they met with the Governor in the morning, had lunch with the legislators, and then they met with the Chamber of Commerce board and some HANMI members after lunch. But because they spent too much time with the legislators, they had less than a half hour to give to the private sector leaders. And let’s be honest, how much can you honestly hope to accomplish in a half hour? By the time they were done shaking hands and introducing themselves a good chunk of our time was already gone. By all appearances this was a staged trip to make it look like some members of the U.S. Congress were trying to justify what they are about to do by having some of their staffers come out here on a “fact finding” trip. They weren’t here long enough to find anything out. And if you listened to what they had to say, they were just spouting the same old lines that we heard from Stayman and Johnson, almost verbatim. Their trip here was not to honor us, but to humor us. If you truly care about the impact your proposed legislation may have on a territory or a Commonwealth, you spend enough time there to truly find out what all the impacts might be. When you zip in and out in less than half a day, you are sending a very strong message that you really don’t care what the impacts are, you’re just trying to cover your backside by putting on a dog and pony show. All indications are that the powers that be in Washington have already made up their minds about what they intend to do, and all of these visits are nothing more than a formality really.

Some of our politicians may realize just how serious the situation is for businesses here right now. But I have a feeling they are probably outnumbered by the politicians who are only looking for a bail out from Uncle Sam. They would gladly sell out our right to control our own immigration and minimum wage in exchange for a big cash handout from the U.S. government every year. The main problem with that scenario is that it takes away the major tools that businesses have to remain profitable and stay in business, and would in effect turn us into a welfare state.

Yes it’s probably true that there have been some businesses that have charged far more than they needed to in the past and have gouged their clients and customers. But we need to keep in mind that most business owners are in business for one reason, and that is to make money. If they didn’t care about profit margins and making money, they would most likely be working with a non-profit organization. If businesses can no longer make what they consider to be a reasonable profit, they will relocate to somewhere else that they can. If we lose control of our immigration and are no longer allowed to bring in Chinese and Russian tourists, the effects will be felt through almost every segment of the business community. The hotels will have less guests, meaning that they won’t need as many staff, and may have to cut wages or hours of the staff they can keep. Restaurants will have fewer customers, meaning that some of them will probably have to close, and others may have to raise prices and cut back on staff as well. Tour operators won’t need as many staff, and will have to cut back. This also means the hotels and restaurants will have less money to spend on things like advertising. So the newspapers, and radio stations will also be taking further cuts. Which by the way, we’ve already seen some very drastic cuts, and can only imagine how much worse it will be if we lose more tourists. Because of what has been happening here economically, we are also cutting back on our staff, we have cut 2 positions in the last couple of months, and that is just to try to survive.

The trickle down effect is hitting us all very hard right now, but as bad as it is, it could be much worse. The main problem is that is directly where we are heading according to the various political staffers we have had visiting us lately. On the one hand they will say something like they understand our situation and really don’t want to do anything that will adversely affect our economy. But then the next minute they will give some line about how much money the U.S. government is pumping into Guam with the military build up, and how homeland security is such a concern, and that outweighs any adverse effect taking over our immigration may have on our economy. If you listen to them carefully, you will walk away with a severe headache, and will swear their tongues begin to look like they’re forked after a while.

So what will these islands be like if we continue losing businesses the way we have for the past 5 years? Take a look back to what the islands were like 30 years ago that will give you a pretty good idea of where we could be heading. The main problem with a welfare state is that you are totally dependent on handouts from someone else; you have lost the ability to generate your own wealth and to create business opportunities. You take how much they decide to give you and when they decide to give it to you. You really have no bargaining chips left, you have been reduced to beggar status, and begging becomes your way of life to survive. Yes there will be a few businesses left, after all someone will always be willing to take the money you have been given for basic commodities. But the problem with the lack of competition is that they can also hold you hostage and charge whatever they feel like. You can either pay it or go without. And yes, there were those who got rich in the old days because they happened to be in the right place at the right time, and yes, they did charge whatever they felt like.

I realize that I’m painting a pretty gloomy picture of where we could easily be heading, but all the indications are that’s a definite possibility. I hope our politicians are wise enough to realize we need to have a sustainable economy here, and that living on handouts is really no way to live. Something tells me there will be great temptation to sell us all out for a quick fix or a cash infusion, but that would only kill us in the long run. As bad as things are right now, they are continuing to get worse as we lose more and more of the garment factories. James Lin, who at one time had the second largest garment factory on island, has now announced that he will also be closing his factory in the next couple of months. I told you a while ago that unless there was some kind of major concession for the factories, like an amendment to Headnote 3a, that we would lose all the factories by the middle of 2008 at the very latest. It looks like that may have been a generous estimate and they may all be gone by the end of this year. With the absence of all the garment factories tax contributions to the government coffers, there will be more temptation than ever for the politicians to sell us out for a quick bail out.

Right now the people really need to hear from their leaders about what is going on, and to hear that our leaders are on top of things. I realize they don’t have all the answers, but they need to at least tell us what they are thinking and what their plans are. Otherwise people have no reason to have any hope or confidence that things will ever change or get any better. Again, my microphone on Island Issues is always open to the Governor, and I’m hoping that he will again soon see fit to come in and discuss the issues of the day and to let you know what is going on. If we have ever needed strong leadership, it is right now.

I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.

Are we doing enough to make sure some of our most scenic spots are safe for tourists and residents alike?

Food For Thought 3-30-07

Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.

Saipan is once again grieving, this time over the loss of the 4 students who drowned at Forbidden Island last week. The pain from such a tragedy is almost indescribable for the families, the friends and the fellow classmates. After the initial shock wears off, then people begin asking questions about how something like this could happen, and what could have and should have been done to prevent the senseless loss of life.

I have talked about this situation with my family and many friends. One of the recurrent themes I have heard is that Forbidden Island is just too dangerous and we have lost too many people there over the years, so maybe it is time to stop all access and indeed make it a Forbidden Island. Yes, it is true that Forbidden Island can be a very dangerous place to visit; the currents there can be extremely swift and dangerous, sucking you out to sea before you know what happened. Walking on the shelf rock where the waves wash up is also extremely risky, because you just never know when a rogue wave will wash up and sweep you off your feet and suck you out into the ocean. There are also many sharp rocks and steep areas that you could easily fall and either break bones or die from the impact.

But are those inherent risks enough to determine that no one else should ever be allowed to hike down to this beautiful natural wonder? Is it enough to say that because we have lost a certain amount of people down there that we should now make it off limits and never allow anyone to relax in the cool cave pool at the bottom, or allow them to cross over and climb to the top of Forbidden Island and enjoy one of the spots that offers the most solitude on Saipan? Should we also stop people from going to the Forbidden Island lookout? After all, it is a very steep cliff that falls several hundred feet straight down, and people have been known to climb over the fence and go out on the rocks on the very edge of the cliff to have a better view of the shallow waters below. You can often see turtles down playing in the surf if you look closely. But it could be very dangerous if you lose your footing or aren’t paying attention.

If we are to seriously consider closing access to Forbidden Island because of the safety factor, then where do we stop? Should we also stop letting divers go down into the Grotto since we have lost over a dozen people in the last 10 years or so down there? Yes, the Grotto can also be a dangerous place, especially if you’re down there without someone who is very familiar with it and can help you safely navigate the hazards. We have lost several divers who went outside the Grotto into the open ocean and couldn’t find their way back in to the Grotto. The holes look very different on the outside than they do when you’re exiting the Grotto through them, and it’s easy to get turned around and confused. Yes, the simple answer would seem to be to require all divers to go with experienced divers so that you minimize the risks. But many of the divers we have lost at the Grotto were with experienced dive guides, so that’s not always a guarantee either.

Should we also stop letting fishermen take their boats out into the open ocean, since we have lost many fishermen over the years in tragic boating accidents. We all know that the ocean has very dangerous waves and strong currents, and boat motors have a bad habit of breaking down. So should we stop the fishermen from going out for their own good and safety?

Should we also make Suicide and Bonzai cliff off limits, since they are both areas that have a very high cliff line, and if you fall off either one, it will most likely be a fatal mistake?

Maybe we should also forbid people from walking next to a road, or from walking to cross a road, since there have also been many deaths from that over the years.

I think you can see that most of these examples are ridiculous, and we would never, ever consider limiting access because of the risks or because there have been deaths associated with them in the past. And I’m certainly not trying to be insensitive during this time of grieving for the families and friends of the students who were lost. But I believe we need to take a look at the situation reasonably, and see if there are any lessons that need to be learned from it, and if there is anything we could, or should be doing to try to avoid a tragedy such as this in the future.

For many years I told everyone that would sit still long enough that there weren’t adequate warnings posted at the Grotto. I saw people going down there every week who didn’t realize how dangerous the waves could be in the washing machine, and how easily they could sweep you into the rocks. And over the years I have pulled more than my fair share of them out, usually bloody and scared to death. Only after years of talking and pestering people about it, and many, many deaths, was a sign finally erected at the top of the Grotto trying to warn of the dangers in different languages. Sadly, most people seem to think the sign misses the mark, and doesn’t properly communicate where the dangers are or tell how to avoid them. And many people fought having a sign installed at the bottom of the Grotto warning that you shouldn’t go beyond that point unless you were with an experienced guide. They have claimed it would ruin the natural beauty of the Grotto and it wouldn’t be nearly as photogenic. There are also those that have fought having a bridge installed at the bottom of the Grotto crossing over to the rock for many of the same reasons.

Some people would say that if you start putting up signs warning of danger, then you’d have to put them everywhere as well, and they would become an eyesore, and require regular upkeep. I would argue that some places the danger is obvious and common sense is all that is required to avoid danger. I would put Suicide and Bonzai cliff in that category, as well as fishermen going out onto the open ocean and people walking across roads. We should all be very familiar with the dangers these areas pose and behave accordingly. Warning signs there would seem to be somewhat unnecessary and excessive.

But I believe that because some of the dangers at Grotto and Forbidden Island are not so obvious unless you’re very familiar with the area, and because of the fairly high numbers of lost lives there over the years, that warning signs in the different languages would be a very good idea. Placement of the signs is very important, they need to be in areas that you will have to see them before getting to the danger spots. The wording and pictures or diagrams also need to be very clear and easily understandable. I don’t believe we have done all we could have in the past to take care of our tourists and residents, and that is a mistake I believe we should rectify as soon as possible. I know there have been turf wars in the past over such issues, the different agencies arguing over whose responsibility it was, and who got to determine what would be said on the sign. Frankly, we can no longer afford to waste time over these kinds of petty arguments, we are needlessly losing lives all because we haven’t done a good job of warning of the dangers present in these areas.

I also came across a situation last weekend that I was quite shocked to see. There was a Japanese dive guide feeding sharks inside the Grotto and putting on quite the show for a couple of his tourist divers. He had a black bag, which contained what looked like raw meat with plenty of blood. He was wearing a chain mail glove to protect his hand as he fed the sharks. He would pull a piece of meat out of the bag and hold it for the sharks to come and grab. Then when the sharks would bite the meat, he wouldn’t let go, but would grab the shark and wrestle with him for a few moments before finally releasing him. I was doing my decompression stop on the rope when I noticed the sharks in the Grotto were behaving very aggressively. They were swimming around the Grotto much faster than usual, and were going right up to the divers, evidently looking to see if any of them were going to feed them as well. I also noticed 2 very large barracuda swimming around inside the Grotto, and this is the first time I can recall them being inside the Grotto. Several divers appeared to be a bit spooked at having sharks flying all around them inside the Grotto, and of course the swimmers who were almost directly above the shark feeding frenzy had no clue what was happening below them. And all of this was taking place only about 50 feet from the safety stop rope inside the Grotto.

Other locations that have shark feeding dives typically have them several miles out in the open ocean, so that you minimize the risk of the sharks becoming desensitized in an area where you have regular swimmers who are unaware of the situation. But this dive guide evidently thought that would be too much hassle, and he decided to take advantage of the fact that the Grotto does have several resident white tip reef sharks these days, and decided to put on his little show right there, with swimmers and other divers who had no clue what was going on. This is exceedingly dangerous and foolish, and will eventually wind up in some kind of an accident as a result. Fortunately the local authorities don’t seem anymore impressed with the whole situation than I was, and vow to stop it.

I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.

My commentary that airs on radio stations KZMI - 103.9 FM & KCNM - 101.1 FM